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** FROGS - science debate
** FROGS **
Colleagues Say Frog Deformity Researchers Leaped Too Soon.
The Washington Post, November 3, 1997, pA3.
The scientific debate over what is causing deformed frogs around the
nation is starting to
sour, with researchers accusing colleagues of making rushed and
"I'm saddened by this," said Gil Veith, associate director of EPA's
Laboratory. "Now federal scientists are going to look like idiots. Even the
ones who are
ultimately proven right."
On September 30 officials from the National Institute of Environmental
(NIEHS) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) announced that
Minnesota surface and ground water had caused abnormalities, but they were
compound in the water may have caused the defects. They also said the human
health effects were
also unknown, but residents with affected wells were offered bottled water
as a precaution.
The announcement made other scientists that were familiar with the
used unhappy. In the bioassay, embryos of the African clawed frog were
exposed to Minnesota
water samples for 96 hours then microscopically examined for
"They're looking at a totally aquatic species from Africa with a very
And they're looking at it after four days of development, before it even
has legs," said Andrew
Blaustein, a zoologist at Oregon State University. "In my opinion the press
alarmist and very premature."
Researchers at the EPA's Mid-Continent Ecology lab in Duluth
experiments and came to a different interpretation of the results.
"The NIEHS acted irresponsibly in the rush for headlines," said Veith.
some very basic rules for running bioassays. They're not experienced with
aquatic species. The
Duluth lab is, and the results from Duluth are as clear as you can get."
The EPA scientists found that the abnormalities in the NIEHS
experiment resulted from a
benign ion imbalance in the water samples. When several ordinary salts were
added to the waters
the frogs grew normally. These imbalances are common in Minnesota waters
and are known to
interfere with bioassays. They can also increase the toxicity of chemicals
in the water and cannot
be ruled out as contributing to the deformities. But EPA scientists say
NIEHS and MPCA had no
reason to scare the public over possible human health effects.
"Results don't mean anything if they aren't interpreted properly,"
said Joe Tietge, a
research biologist in EPA's Duluth lab. "Anybody with a tropical fish
aquarium knows that if you
fill it up with tap water it will kill the fish. That doesn't mean your tap
water isn't safe to drink."
Jim Burkhart, the NIEHS scientist who is coordinating the
investigation with MPCA said
he was unhappy about making the public announcement before fully
interpreting the data. "We
had no intention of going public until we were further along," said
Burkhardt. "But the MPCA
insisted, and we had to respect their call even though we didn't have all
Judy Helgen, a research scientist with MPCA confirmed the decision was
theirs and that
they would make the same decision today. MPCA was concerned that word of
their findings was
already beginning to spread and that deliveries of bottled water to homes
near wetlands with
deformed frogs would cause panic.
"We felt as a public agency we needed to let people know exactly where
research was at."
said Helgen. "As scientists, none of us wanted to go public. We're already
doing too much of this
work in the public eye."